Three Reasons Partiality Is Wrong

Years ago, I read an article by someone who had grown up in a poor community, done well in school, and later attended Harvard. While he was there, he picked up some of the Harvard airs—the Boston accent, the expensive clothing, the taste for smoking a pipe.

When he came home for Christmas, his father invited him to join him on the patio for a cigar. He was impressed, since the label was a high-dollar cigar. So the son decided to show his father how sophisticated he had become. He began by complimenting the various features of the fancy cigar: “See, Dad, you can tell it’s a good cigar because of the way the top just pops off. It’s been properly rolled.”

He then lit it and said, “See, Dad, you can tell this is a nice cigar by the way it lights—the tobacco is still properly moist, so it takes a moment to catch flame. It’s been cured well.”

The son made several other expert-sounding observations about the cigars, which his father endured. Then his dad finally responded, “That’s great, son, especially since these are really cheap cigars. That’s a $30 label on a 75-cent cigar.”

Simply putting a fancy cover onto something doesn’t make the inside any different. You can’t judge a book, a person—or a cigar—by its cover.

Some of us have a tendency to look down on people who are different from us—the poor, the rich, those who passionately worship, those who are divorced, single parents, working moms. Add in your own categories here. The label doesn’t much matter. What matters is our tendency to judge without knowing. If we do that, there’s prejudice at work in our hearts. And James says that this way of thinking has no place in the church, for three reasons:

First, external riches rarely reflect internal excellencies.

James says that those who are materially rich tend to miss spiritual blessings. It was the rich young ruler and the Pharisees who missed Jesus, and the prostitutes and tax collectors who flocked around him.

Paul echoes James when he asks his readers to consider their calling, knowing that God chooses what is foolish to shame the wise so that no one can boast (1 Corinthians 1:27–31). God, more often than not, chooses the poor to fill his church in order to humble human pride.

It’s not that the rich or powerful or super-intelligent will never come to Jesus. It’s just that riches have a way of making us feel like we don’t need God. Plus, it’s not our riches that attract God’s attention anyway. God gives knowledge of himself as a gift of grace, so when it comes to receiving grace, riches and strength and righteousness can be liabilities to putting yourself in a position to receive it.

Second, showing no partiality is the essence of the Great Commandment.

When we treat someone differently because of the way they look or how much money they have, we break the second commandment, to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We can’t claim to keep God’s laws and ignore the commandment at the crux of it all.

If we say we’re pro-life or pro-marriage but remain racist or preferential, we’ve rejected the authority of King Jesus at precisely the point he said the Law mattered most. Looking down on someone for any superficial reason or treating them with any less respect because of something they are or are not is a sin. According to James, a royal sin.

Third, disdain for the poor demonstrates disconnect from the gospel.

When we claim to be Christians, we put all our hope for eternal life in God’s mercy, embracing that there’s nothing about our worthiness that earns God’s favor. We, the unworthy, have been given a free gift.

That same gospel is about God’s rescue of the poor, not his rewarding of the rich. Before God, we were poor, blind, and wretched because of our sin. But in grace God has brought us near, and he has promised that he will not judge us according to our sins but according to his mercy given us in Christ.

If we’ve truly received God’s mercy, we can’t help but show it to others. It’s impossible, James says, to have any true awareness of the gospel and remain a judging, unforgiving, locked-up person. Any Christian who understands that should treat others in the same way.